ROME — All that separated the giddy Sicilian college kids from assembly Old Saint Nick — arriving on horseback along with his lengthy white beard, crimson gown and bag filled with items — was a Christmas message from the bishop of Noto.

“Santa Claus,” thundered Bishop Antonio Staglianò, “is an imaginary character.”

Children’s jaws dropped and the vacation wool fell from their eyes as, for a lot of lengthy minutes within the Santissimo Salvatore Basilica, the bishop continued to stay it to Santa, who he mentioned had little interest in households strapped for money.

“The red color of his coat was chosen by Coca-Cola for advertising purposes,” the bishop mentioned. Big soda, he added, “uses the image to depict itself as an emblem of healthy values.”

The bishop’s broadside in opposition to Babbo Natale, as Father Christmas is known as right here, constituted solely the most recent installment in what has turn out to be a brand new Italian vacation custom. Just about yearly, Roman Catholic clerics insist that for Italians to maintain Christ in Christmas, Santa should be saved out of it.

In 2019, a priest within the northern city of Magliano Alpi instructed kids that there was no man wearing pink who “magically” delivered items. In 2018, within the Sardinian metropolis of Quartu Sant’Elena, one other priest drew tears by revealing that Santa Claus was in actual fact none aside from their mothers and dads.

This 12 months’s episode, on Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, was particularly brazen, mentioned Giuliana Scarnato, one of many academics accompanying the kids, none older than 9, on a faculty journey to the church in Noto.

Credit…Tommaso Di Girolamo/AGF, by way of Getty Images

She mentioned the bishop “could have left Santa Claus out of it,” however made some extent to name Father Christmas “fantastical, that he never existed.” She mentioned that when one of many kids protested, telling the bishop that her mother and father had assured her Santa was actual, the cleric responded that the kid ought to inform her mother and father “you tell lies.”

In an interview, Bishop Staglianò mentioned he remembered placing it extra tactfully, and insisted he merely defined that the roots for Santa — whom he depicted as a noxious product of the industrial-soft drink-consumerism advanced — lay within the historic personage of St. Nicholas, a charitable fourth-century bishop of Myra, in modern-day Turkey, who, custom holds, taken care of the poor.

He had robust emotions on the matter.

“Is Father Christmas everyone’s father, or just some?” he mentioned, poking holes within the case for Santa Claus. “In the lockdown, Father Christmas didn’t visit the families that he used to. Why? It’s definitely not for fear of the coronavirus.”

The bishop recalled warmly the times when Italian kids would handle their want lists to the Baby Jesus, “Not Santa Claus and the reindeer and let’s go to the movies and go bowling and all this American junk.”

This 12 months, nationalists opened a brand new entrance in Italy’s combat over the form of Christmas. Desperate for a problem with standard enchantment in a interval of political stability, they’ve picked up on the American proper’s declare to be opposing a warfare on Christmas.

For them, the primary goal has been not Santa Claus however the European Union.

In November, a conservative Italian newspaper found {that a} European Union commissioner’s workplace had drafted pointers for inside correspondence, calling for extra inclusive, gender-neutral and fewer holiday-specific language.

“Not everyone celebrates the Christian holidays, and not all Christians celebrate them on the same dates,” learn the doc, which suggested employees to keep away from phrases like “Christmas time can be stressful.” Better, it prompt, could be “Holiday times can be stressful.”

The stress got here instantly, with far-right leaders going to city.

Matteo Salvini, the nationalist chief and former deputy prime minister, posted on social media an image of a decapitated statue of the Virgin Mary in a ditch.

Mr. Salvini, who will not be particularly non secular however usually portrays himself as a defender of Christianity, wrote on Facebook, “The European Commission invites us not to celebrate Holy Christmas to not offend others, and some moron does these gross things.”

Another right-wing nationalist politician, Giorgia Meloni, instructed the conservative newspaper Libero that the E.U. steering was “shameful.”

“No one can feel offended by a child who is born in a manger,” she added.

Even Pope Francis — who has prompt that nationalist leaders are un-Christian for his or her opposition to migrants — has echoed them relating to canceling Christmas.

Asked concerning the E.U. doc earlier this month, Francis mentioned, “This is an anachronism,” and accused the bloc of following within the footsteps of totalitarians. “In history many, many dictatorships have tried” to undercut the church,” he mentioned. “Think of Napoleon. From there, think of the Nazi dictatorship, the communist one.”

But Francis has thus far not rallied to defend Santa from his personal bishop’s remarks, and the Vatican has not returned a request for remark.

Bishop Staglianò argued he was totally consistent with Francis.

“With all due respect,” he mentioned, “Santa Claus only brings gifts to those who have money” whether or not the kids are naughty or good.

The poor households and migrants he visits each Christmas, he mentioned, “have never seen Santa Claus.” So he urged the kids within the church to ask Santa Claus for much more items and, if he confirmed up, clarify to him that they might now give to poor kids “given that you never visit them!”

He mentioned not one of the moms within the church dared contradict him and a few kids, emboldened by his preaching, spoke up with the ability of revelation. “I always knew it, that my dad was Santa Claus,” he mentioned one baby introduced.

Breaking this Christmas “spell” was progress, the bishop mentioned, recalling that as a small baby he wrote letters asking Santa for cash and put them underneath his father’s dinner plate. He’d discover an envelope with just a few thousand outdated Italian lire underneath his pillow.

But he knew at age 4 it was his father, he mentioned, and argued that the 7-year-olds within the pews knew the rating full nicely too. The 62-year-old bishop mentioned he hadn’t shattered any sugar plum illusions.

“If we knew,” he mentioned, referring to his era, “imagine these kids with their smartphones.”

Tradition holds that St. Nicholas was sort to kids and gave chilly cash to a few poor sisters who would have in any other case turned to prostitution. Over the centuries he grew to become a patron saint of, amongst different issues, kids, pawnbrokers and Russia. Still right this moment many Russians journey to the southern Italian metropolis of Bari the place his relics, stolen by sailors centuries in the past, are saved within the San Nicola Basilica.

The custom of St. Nicholas ultimately unfold north, the place the Dutch referred to as him Sinterklaas, a variant of St. Nicholas. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam, later New York, the place English audio system within the American colonies Anglicized the saint’s identify to Santa Claus.

The reindeer, sleigh, Christmas Eve deliveries and massive stomach have been added within the 19th century — as was the pink coat, which was customary Santa garb lengthy earlier than Coca-Cola obtained concerned.

But as soon as Santa began hawking sodas, all of it went downhill, Bishop Staglianò instructed the kids within the church.

Attempting to comprise the fallout, a diocese spokesman, Don Alessandro Paolino, wrote on the diocesan Facebook web page, “on behalf of the bishop, I express my sorrow for this declaration which has created disappointment in the little ones, and want to specify that Monsignor Staglianò’s intentions were quite different.”

He then picked up the place the bishop left off, decrying “Santa Claus aka consumerism, the desire to own, buy, buy and buy again.”

Bishop Staglianò mentioned that he was not in opposition to all present giving, however that it needed to be a thoughtful current, nicely chosen — when not in shops, then “delivered by Amazon” — and given by hand.

Despite the fervor of his anti-Santa salvo, it was in the end no match for the sight of Old St. Nick on horseback outdoors the church. The kids clamored round him as he dismounted, took a seat on a pink throne and handed out pencils, sweet and different items, mentioned Ms. Scarnato, the instructor.

“Once they were outside the church the speech wore off because they were smitten with St. Nicholas,” she mentioned. “They were happy.”

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